Who Lives in Germany?

Though Germany has long proclaimed itself to be “kein Einwanderungsland,” or “not an immigration country,” there is a long, rich, history of foreigners making Deutschland their home. According to the United Nations’ 2013 Trends in International Migration Stock, Germany’s share of immigrant citizens ranks it as the third highest host of non-natives in the world. One-fifth of the German population is comprised of immigrants and their children, and in many of Germany’s largest cities, a majority of children under the age of 6 have a so-called migration background, meaning that they, one of their parents, or one of their grandparents was born outside of Deutschland. At the national level, one-third of the estimated 16 million people with a migration background living in Germany did not immigrate, but were born in Germany.

German Population By Migration Background

Of Germany’s population with a migration background, Turks make up the largest percentage. Citizens of Turkey were invited to become guest workers in Germany during the Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle. A divided nation, rapidly redeveloping in the wake of World War II, needed un- and semi-skilled laborers to work in its blue collar industries. Though in theory these workers were to live in Germany temporarily, many stayed beyond the program’s official end in 1973 due to the dearth of economic opportunities in Turkey.

Germany's Migrant Population According to Region of Origin

suddeutsche ZeitungTurkish migrants arrive at Germany’s Düsseldorf Airport (AP Photo)

Who lives in Berlin?

Germany’s capital is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. In 2014, this 892 square kilometer city held 3.5 million residents from around the world. Berlin’s population, like that of Germany more broadly, contains a significant portion of persons with a migration background. Again, the largest non-ethnic German population is the Turks.

Berlin's Population By Nationality
According to Berlin’s Statistischer Bericht: Einwohnerinnen und Einwohner im Land Berlin, or Statistical Report: Residents in the State of Berlin, as of 2012 there were 176,743 Turkish citizens in the city. This is a conservative estimate, with other sources quantifying the population as higher than 250,000. Of this population, 75,628 were German citizens. Berlin’s Turks reside primarilly in the boroughs of Mitte, Neukölln, and Kreuzberg.

Berlin Residents With Migration Background


The Turkish diaspora in Germany must be understood within the context of the nation’s struggle to define itself. Historical internal and external conflicts over essential German-ness have become contemporarily manifested in the challenge of embracing a collective national identity that doesn’t conjure the memory of a Nazi-like superiority complex. Unfortunately, as a result, Deutschland has managed to unite itself against a common enemy: cultural outsiders.

Marc Howard’s Germany’s Citizenship Policy in Comparative Perspective outlines the nation’s migration and citizenship legislation, which was, until 1999, the “most restrictive in the world.” The 1999 German Nationality Act, unlike its predecessor, allowed for partial jus soli, lowered the residency requirement to eight years, and permitted dual citizenship for children. “Overall,” Howard writes, “the new policy represents a significant liberalization of the earlier law. Certainly, a reduced residency requirement and the right to citizenship by jus soli facilitate the process by which foreigners can acquire full rights as German citizens. This represents a remarkable change after decades of exclusive reliance on ethnic criteria. Yet the prohibition of dual citizenship makes the liberalization only partial and it remains to be seen whether Germany will truly open up its conception of who can be German.”


(BBC Photo)

Though not all Turks are Muslim, and not all followers of Islam are Turkish, these populations have become inextricably intertwined in Germany. 63.2% of Muslims in Germany come from Turkey, one-third of whom identify as “very religious.” Moreover, Byrnes and Katzenstein argue, in Religion in an Expanding Europe, that “Turk” and “Muslim” became interchangeable in Germany by the 1960s. For many of the Muslim Germans I informally interviewed, Islam was more than religion– it is their most salient identity. In other words, for them, their Muslim identity took precedent over being German.

It is unfortunate, then, that the Migration Policy Institute’s Identity and (Muslim) Integration in Germany reports that German public opinion contains some of the strongest anti-Muslim sentiments in Western Europe. Though only 4% of Germans think that “Muslim immigration to Germany should be [completely] stopped,” people of Muslim backgrounds are less likely to be hired, have harder times finding apartments, and students are less likely to receive teacher recommendations for higher-education opportunities. Islam and being Muslim are perceived as being in sharp contrast to the idea of being German; three-quarters of respondents to MPI’s survey disagree that “Muslim culture fits into our [German] Western world.”

In the last decade, the biggest friction between Muslim Turks and ethnic Germans has been about assimilation. Many of the former would like to retain and practice their ethnic and religious identities, but the latter claim that to be German means to totally assimilate. The battle is, in many ways, political; Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Deutschtürken, or the Turks living in Germany, “No one can expect you to subject yourselves to assimilation, because assimilation is a crime against humanity” ahead of  Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, 2010 proclamation that immigrants are welcome to Deutschland but multiculturalism “…has failed, utterly failed.” Though former President Christian Wulff once said Islam is “part of Germany” and  former Interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, established Deutsche Islamkonferenz in 2006 to create a national framework for dialogue between the German state and Muslims living in Germany, the bottom line has and continues to be for all citizens to unite as a common people if they’re living in Germany, no matter what the cost to individual identity. 

In my opinion, total assimilation is not the perfect solution, but it is better than outright rejection, as proposed by Thilo Sarrazin. In his controversial Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab: Wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen (Germany Abolishes Itself: How we put our country at risk), Sarrazin argues that Turks are hindering Germany’s intellectual and economic stability. Though condemned by Merkel, Sarrazin was lauded as a hero by many Germans who appreciated his frank opinion on the issues facing the nation.


Questions of multiculturalism, immigrant assimilation, and ethnic “otherness” in Germany have become even more salient in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. Germany has opened its doors to 1 million Syrians since August 2015, but according to a recent ARD poll, 62% of the population is dissatisfied with Merkel’s stance and would like to cap refugee immigration. Will this be a repeat of the Gastarbeiter?